Linguistic prescription

"Prescriptive" redirects here. For other uses, see Prescription (disambiguation).

Linguistic prescription (or prescriptivism) is the practice of elevating one variety or manner of language use over another. It may imply that some forms are incorrect, improper, or illogical, or lack communicative effect, or are of low aesthetic value.[1] Sometimes informed by linguistic purism,[2] these normative practices may address such linguistic aspects as spelling, grammar, semantics, pronunciation, and syntax. They may also include judgments on socially proper and politically correct language use.

Linguistic prescriptivism may aim to establish a standard language, teach what a particular society perceives as a correct form, or advise on effective communication. If usage preferences are conservative, prescription might appear resistant to language change; if radical, it may produce neologisms.[3]

Prescriptive approaches to language are often contrasted with descriptive linguistics ("descriptivism"), which observes and records how language is actually used.[4] The basis of linguistic research is text (corpus) analysis and field study, both of which are descriptive activities. Description, however, may include researchers' observations of their own language usage.

Despite being apparent opposites, prescription and description may inform each other,[3] as comprehensive descriptive accounts must take speaker preferences into account, and an understanding of how language is actually used is necessary for prescription to be effective.


The chief aim of linguistic prescription is to specify standard language forms (either generally, as in Standard English, or in style and register) in a way that is easily taught and learned.[5] Prescription may apply to most aspects of language, including spelling, grammar, semantics, pronunciation, syntax, and register.

Standardized languages are useful for inter-regional communication, allowing speakers of divergent dialects to understand a standard language used in broadcasting, for example, more readily than each other's dialects. While such a lingua franca may evolve by itself, the desire to formulate and define it is widespread in most parts of the world. Writers or communicators often adhere to prescriptive rules to make their communication clearer and more widely understood. Similarly, stability of a language over time helps one to understand writings from the past.

In addition, it is often useful to have a standard so as to be able to decide whether or not a speaker or writer is using an "educated" form of the language.

Linguistic prescription may also be used to impose a political ideology. During the second half of the 20th century, politically motivated efforts driven by various advocacy groups had considerable influence on language use under the broad banner of "political correctness". These successfully imposed special rules for anti-sexist, anti-racist or generically anti-discriminatory language (e.g. "people-first language" as advocated by disability rights organizations).

George Orwell criticized the use of euphemisms and convoluted phrasing as a means of hiding insincerity in Politics and the English Language (1946). His fictional "Newspeak" (in 1984, written around the year 1949) is a parody of ideologically motivated linguistic prescriptivism.


The Royal Spanish Academy, Madrid

Prescription presupposes authorities whose judgment may be followed by other speakers and writers. An authority may be a prominent writer or educator such as Henry Fowler, whose Modern English Usage defined the standard for British English for much of the 20th century,[6] or Strunk and White in their Elements of Style for American English. The Duden grammar (first edition 1880) has a similar status for German.

Although lexicographers often see their work as purely descriptive, dictionaries are widely regarded as prescriptive authorities. Popular books such as Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots & Leaves (2003), which argues for stricter adherence to prescriptive punctuation rules, also seek to exert an influence.

Linguistic prescription is regulated formally in some places. The Académie française in Paris is a French national body whose recommendations are widely respected, though not legally enforceable there. In Germany and the Netherlands, recent spelling reforms were devised by teams of linguists commissioned by the government and then implemented by statute. Some met with significant dissent, for example the German orthography reform of 1996.

Other kinds of authorities exist in specific settings, such as publishers establishing a house style specifying preferred spellings or grammatical forms, such as serial commas. Wikipedia's own Wikipedia:Manual of Style is an example of this. Others may be self-appointed advocates whose rules are propagated in the popular press, as in "proper Cantonese pronunciation".

Examples of national prescriptive bodies and initiatives are:


Historically, linguistic prescriptivism originates in a standard language when a society establishes social stratification and a socio-economic hierarchy. The spoken and written language usages of the authorities (state, military, church) are preserved as the standard language. Departures from this standard language may jeopardise social success (see social class). Sometimes, archaisms and honorific colours may be deliberately introduced to distinguish the prestige form of the language from contemporary colloquial language. Likewise, the style of language used in ritual also differs from everyday speech.[7] Special ceremonial languages known only to a select few spiritual leaders are found throughout the world.

Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese characters

When a culture develops a writing system, orthographic rules for the consistent transcription of linguistic outputs allow a large number of speakers to understand written communications easily. Linguists largely disregard native writing systems, replacing the conventional symbols of the language they are researching with phonetic transcriptions, but they nonetheless rely on some shared orthographic representation to preserve semantic identities with data sets. This is most commonly achieved by providing the conventional orthographic representation of the English translation of a word alongside the IPA transcription of the word's pronunciation when spoken by a native speaker.

Early historical trends in literacy and alphabetization were closely tied to the influence of various religious institutions. Western Christianity propagated the Latin alphabet. Eastern Orthodoxy spread the Greek and Cyrillic alphabets. Judaism used the Hebrew alphabet and Islam the Arabic alphabet. Hinduism used the Devanagari script.[8] In certain traditions, strict adherence to prescribed spellings and pronunciations was and remains of great spiritual importance. Islamic naming conventions and greetings are notable examples of linguistic prescription being prerequisite to spiritual righteousness. Another commonly-cited example of prescriptive language usage closely associated with social propriety is the system of honorific speech in Japanese.

Ptolemaic hieroglyphics from the Temple of Kom Ombo

Government bureaucracy tends toward prescriptivism as a means of enforcing functional continuity. Such prescriptivism dates from ancient Egypt, where bureaucrats preserved the spelling of the Middle Kingdom of Egypt into the Ptolemaic period through the standard usage of Egyptian hieroglyphics.[9]

Most, if not all, widely spoken languages demonstrate some degree of social codification in how they conform to prescriptive rules. Linguistic prestige is a central research topic within sociolinguistics. Notions of linguistic prestige apply to different dialects of the same language and also to separate, distinct languages in multilingual regions. Prestige level disparity often leads to diglossia: speakers in certain social contexts consciously choose a prestige language or dialect over a less prestigious one, even if is their native tongue.


From the earliest attempts at prescription in classical times grammarians have based their norms on observed prestige use of language. Modern prescriptivist textbooks draw heavily on descriptive linguistic analysis.

Prescription also privileges some existing forms over others, mainly to maximize clarity and precision in language use. Others are subjective judgments of what constitutes good taste. Some reflect the promotion of one class or region within a language community over another, which can become politically controversial.

Prescription can also reflect ethical considerations, as in prohibiting swear words. Words referring to elements of sexuality or toilet hygiene may be regarded as obscene. Blasphemies against religion may be forbidden. In recent decades political correctness has had a profound censorious effect.[10]

English prescription is sometimes thought to have been based on the norms of Latin grammar. Robert Lowth is frequently cited as having done so, but he specifically objected to "forcing the English under the rules of a foreign Language".[11] It is true that analogies with Latin were sometimes used to buttress arguments, but only in defending an accepted prestige form of English.


Although the standardization of language has an established place in such fields as broadcasting, computer programming, and international commerce, prescriptivism is often subject to criticism. Many linguists, such as Geoffrey Pullum and other posters to Language Log, are highly skeptical of the quality of advice given in many usage guides, including highly-regarded books like Strunk and White's Elements of Style.[12] In particular, linguists point out that popular books on English usage written by journalists or novelists (e.g. Simon Heffer's Strictly English: The Correct Way to Write ... and Why It Matters) often make basic errors in linguistic analysis.[13][14]

One consequence is that prescription has a tendency to favour the language of one particular region or social class over others, and thus militates against linguistic diversity.[15] Frequently, a standard dialect is associated with the upper class, for example Great Britain's Received Pronunciation (RP). RP has now lost much of its status as the Anglophone standard, and other standards are now alternative systems for English as a foreign language. Although these have a more democratic base, they still exclude large parts of the English-speaking world: speakers of Scottish English, Hiberno-English, Australian English, or African-American Vernacular English may feel the standard is slanted against them.[16][17] Thus prescription has political consequences. In the past, prescription was used consciously as a political tool.

A second consequence of prescription is that prescriptive rules quickly become entrenched and it is difficult to change them when the language changes. Thus, there is a tendency for prescription to lag behind the colloquial language. In 1834, an anonymous writer advised against the split infinitive, reasoning that the construction was not a frequent feature of English as he knew it. The construction is sometimes used today in many varieties of English.

A further problem is the difficulty of specifying legitimate criteria. Although prescribing authorities almost invariably have clear ideas about why they make a particular choice, and the choices are therefore seldom entirely arbitrary, they often appear arbitrary to others who do not understand or are not sympathetic to the goals of the authorities. Judgments that seek to resolve ambiguity or increase the ability of the language to make subtle distinctions are easier to defend. Judgments based on the subjective associations of a word are more problematic.

Finally, there is the problem of inappropriate dogmatism. Although competent authorities tend to make careful statements, popular pronouncements on language are apt to condemn. Thus wise prescriptive advice may identify a form as non-standard and suggest that it is used with caution in some contexts. Repeated in the schoolroom, this may become a ruling that the non-standard form is automatically wrong, a view linguists reject. (Linguists may accept that a form is incorrect if it fails to communicate, but not simply because it diverges from a norm.) A classic example from 18th-century England is Robert Lowth's tentative suggestion that preposition stranding in relative clauses sounds colloquial. From this grew a grammatical rule that a sentence should never end with a preposition.

Samuel Johnson, c. 1772

For these reasons, some writers argue that linguistic prescription is foolish or futile. Samuel Johnson commented on the tendency of some prescription to resist language change:

When we see men grow old and die at a certain time one after another, from century to century, we laugh at the elixir that promises to prolong life to a thousand years; and with equal justice may the lexicographer be derided, who being able to produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words and phrases from mutability, shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay, that it is in his power to change sublunary nature, and clear the world at once from folly, vanity, and affectation.

With this hope, however, academies have been instituted, to guard the avenues of their languages, to retain fugitives, and repulse intruders; but their vigilance and activity have hitherto been vain; sounds are too volatile and subtile for legal restraints; to enchain syllables, and to lash the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride, unwilling to measure its desires by its strength. The French language has visibly changed under the inspection of the academy; the stile of Amelot's translation of Father Paul is observed, by Le Courayer to be un peu passé; and no Italian will maintain that the diction of any modern writer is not perceptibly different from that of Boccace, Machiavel, or Caro.

Preface to a Dictionary of the English Language (Project Gutenberg)

See also

Examples of prescriptivist topics


  1. John Edwards (2009) Language and Identity: An introduction p.259
  2. Janicki, Karol (2006) Language misconceived: arguing for applied cognitive sociolinguistics p.155
  3. 1 2 McArthur (1992)
  4. McArthur (1992) p. 286 entry for "Descriptivism and prescriptivism" quotation: "Contrasting terms in linguistics."
  5. McArthur (1992) pp. 979, 982–83
  6. McArthur (1992) p. 414
  7. See, generally, Marianne Mithun, The Languages of Native North America (Cambridge University Press, 1999; ISBN 0-521-23228-7) for North American examples of ritual speech.
  8. David Diringer, The Alphabet: A Key to the History of Mankind (1947; South Asia, reprinted 1996); ISBN 81-215-0748-0
  9. Allen, James P., Middle Egyptian — An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs, (Cambridge University Press, 1999) ISBN 0-521-65312-6
  10. McArthur (1992) p. 794
  11. A Short Introduction to English Grammar, p. 107, condemning Richard Bentley's "corrections" of some of Milton's constructions.
  12. Pullum, Geoffrey (April 17, 2009), "50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice", The Chronicle of Higher Education, retrieved July 25, 2011
  13. Pullum, Geoffrey (September 11, 2010), English grammar: not for debate, retrieved July 25, 2011
  14. Pullum, Geoffrey (November 15, 2010), Strictly incompetent: pompous garbage from Simon Heffer, retrieved July 25, 2011
  15. McArthur (1992) pp. 984–985
  16. McArthur (1992) pp. 850–853
  17. Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Second Edition, Ernest Gowers, Ed., Oxford University Press:1965, pp. 505–506


Further reading

External links

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